When it comes to Maine’s energy needs, every decision should hinge on whether it gets us closer to a clean, electrified future that is sustainable for ratepayers. With the climate crisis threatening our state, and the volatility and cost of using fossil fuels in full view, nothing is more important.

That’s why the Legislature cannot miss this chance to hold Maine’s electric utilities accountable to its customers, and to make sure they’ll be good partners in the necessary transition to clean energy.

ELECTRIFICATION

The transition will be no easy task. To rid our economy of the fossil fuels that are changing life on our planet, everything now running on oil, gas, propane or coal will have to be electrified within the next several decades – every car and truck, every furnace, every water heater and every oven will, over time, have to be replaced with an electrical version.

Doing so will require the generation of a lot more clean electricity, double what we are generating now, by some estimates, and perhaps even three to four times as much.

It will be difficult. But we should be excited about this transition. Done right, not only will it clean the air of carbon emissions and other pollutants, but it also will bring lower, more stable energy prices. It will create jobs, too.

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Maine will have to move steadily along this path, replacing items that use fossil fuels with those that use electricity while adding more clean generation to the grid, if it is going to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Maine’s major utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, have said they are committed to helping Maine reach its goals.

But others argue that these investor-owned companies are first and foremost loyal to their shareholders, which can put them at odds with the wants and needs of their customers in Maine. Beyond problems with customer service and reliability, CMP last year was rightly criticized for dragging its feet in plugging new solar farms into the grid.

In the coming transition, there’s no room for anything but a total commitment to clean energy. For the sake not only of Mainers’ health and well-being, but also of their wallets, everyone’s got to be on board.

That’s why it’s important that the Legislature act now to make sure the utilities who distribute our power are held accountable.

And if lawmakers are to grab this opportunity, they’ll need to compromise.

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COMMITTEE SPLIT

The utility accountability bill proposed by Gov. Mills, submitted in response to efforts to replace CMP and Versant with a nonprofit, consumer-owned utility, which she opposes, could not gain enough support on the Legislature’s energy committee.

Instead, support was split in three. Five committee members, all Democrats, support something close to Mills’ original bill, which includes some measures already being implemented by the Public Utilities Commission. Four others, all Republicans, back an amendment that would hardly do anything.

A third group – with three Democrats and one Republican, and including legislators who are proponents of a consumer-owned utility – supports putting more teeth into the law.

We’d like to see lawmakers side with them. Their version would require utilities renew their contract with the state every 20 years, when now it is indefinite. It would force the companies to make their case, and allow other entities to bid to provide competition.

It would also force utilities to go out to bid in order to spend money on the grid. Utilities are guaranteed a return on those investments, giving them little incentive to lower costs, as they know ratepayers will pick up the bill, along with enough for a healthy profit.

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It also would require more regular audits of the data self-reported by the utilities, and would make customer satisfaction and ratepayer interest more central to how they operate.

OPEN TO COMPROMISE 

This version, from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, would go a long way in helping make sure Maine has the utilities it needs. But Berry says there are provisions his side would give up if that would earn the votes of the other Democrats.

A consumer-owned utility may be in Maine’s future – and it may be the best way for our state to get what it needs out of its utilities.

But a referendum on that issue is at least a year away, and after that any changes would likely take years to work out.

In the meantime, it’s imperative that Maine makes good partners of its utilities. To do so, ratepayers and regulators need to be able to hold them accountable. Lawmakers should not let this session end without taking action.

 


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